Hammin’ it up on the airwaves: Amateur radio spans generations, saves livesJul 05, 2018 05:34AM ● By Jan Weeks
Dave Bratcher has contacted 340 foreign entities worldwide through amateur “ham” radio. He is one of over 840 licensed ham radio operators in Mesa County.
Look up the origin of the term “ham radio” and you’ll find almost as many theories as there are ham operators, everything from people’s initials to the inept telegraphers who were referred to as “ham handed,” or as one wag put it, “heaps a’ money.”
Ham radio isn’t the same as CB (citizens’ band radio), which allows communication on a series of public channels with a limited range of about 15 miles. Ham operators are licensed to communicate on various frequencies that aren’t available to the public and not limited in reach. Calls to Europe, Africa, Asia and South America are not uncommon.
Since 2009, Dave Bratcher has contacted 340 foreign entities worldwide—not just countries, but also principalities and territories.
Pins on a world map in his home show the locations of his contacts to date. His first foreign contact was with the Isle of Jersey (officially the Bailiwick of Jersey), a Crown dependency in the English Channel between England and France. His 100th contact was in the Portuguese archipelago of Madeira.
“I’ve talked to entities on Easter Island, Pitcairn Island, and even the Scott Amundsen station at the South Pole,” he said. “[Making overseas contacts] is like going hunting but without the snow and cold.”
Bratcher participates in “radio sports”—ham contests in which operators worldwide contact others for one minute and log the contact.
“The point is to get as many contacts logged as you can within a given period of time,” he said.
Bratcher is one of more than 840 licensed ham operators in Mesa County. Many ham operators are part of the Western Colorado Amateur Radio Club (WCARC), which meets every month at the Civil Air Patrol Hangar by Grand Junction Regional Airport.
Jack Hart, 81, got into amateur radio after serving as a Green Beret in Special Services at the end of the Korean conflict where he worked as an electronics technician. Once out of the service, he applied for a job at Chrysler Missile, which sought electronic technicians or ham radio operators. He studied for the short-wave test and qualified within two weeks.
Hart has always loved to tinker and took up ham operation as a hobby.
“There was lots of surplus radio equipment after World War II that could be cannibalized for parts,” he said.
Now he operates out of his home north of Fruita and is active in the WCARC. Besides communicating with other radio amateurs around the world, he also teaches workshops for those eager to learn about the craft.
Mike Merriman said the club’s upcoming Ham Fest is a great opportunity for the public to learn more. There will be ham-related speakers, door prizes, sales tables and lunch. Hams can also test for licenses.
A family affair
Ham Fest is where 13-year-old Lily Mina upgraded her beginner status to a more advanced license. Another ham offered to pay for her license, so she took it and passed with flying colors.
Lily credits her father, Dan, with sparking her interest in short-wave radio.
“I didn’t take it seriously at first. It was just something Dad wanted me to do,” she said.
After serving as a Marine during Desert Storm, Dan worked as a truck driver, and a fellow trucker encouraged him to take up ham radio, bringing back a childhood dream.
“I had a babysitter—a guy who was a ham operator and a pilot. I always wanted to learn to operate a radio,” Dan recalled.
Dan’s been an operator since 1998 and is an amateur extra class, the highest classification, which allows an operator to call on the greatest number of frequencies. His wife, Tammy, has her technician’s license, which is the first step in becoming a full-fledged operator.
Lily has her general license, the second classification, and is studying for her expert license.
“My dad is always training me to not break the rules, to stay within the FCC rules,” Lily said.
Lily said her classmates think her hobby is pretty cool. She took second place in The National Association for Amateur Radio (ARRL) Rookie Roundup, a contest for newly licensed operators.
A lifeline in crisis
The best part of being a ham, said Hart, is the camaraderie. Though ham operators are no longer blamed for interfering with radio and television reception like they were in the 1950s, they play a vital role in communications during crisis.
“I don’t think society today is even aware of us, yet we’re their only means of communication if a crisis takes the power grid down,” Hart said. “Cell towers depend on electricity, as do computers. We back up our systems with generators, batteries, even solar and wind power.”
Ham operators were instrumental in getting help to the residents of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria took out all electrical power.
Cindy Balaz, 70, of Loma, has been a ham operator since the late 1960s, when beginners had to transmit by using Morse code. She joined the Civil Air Patrol and helped coordinate search efforts as a ham operator when a small plane carrying athletic coaches back to Gunnison crashed in 1965. Unfortunately, no one survived.
Balaz let her license lapse when she got married, and then renewed it 12 years ago. Though she’s not as active as she once was, she still dials in to different frequencies and listens to conversations. She also checks in with the “oatmeal network” at 7:30 each morning from her mobile unit. The moderator begins with the FCC required identification and then asks other hams to check in.
“It’s a way to hear what people are up to,” Balaz said.
Conversations last about a minute, acknowledging how folks are doing, and sometimes signing off with “73,” the code for “good luck.”
The WCARC Ham Fest and swap meet on Saturday, August 4, allows local short-wave radio operators and the public to come together to exchange ideas and information from 9 a.m.-2 p.m. at First Christian Church, 326 N. First St. in Grand Junction. Admission is free. License testing is $15.